By Father Dimitri Sala
Dimitri Sala is a Franciscan Friar-Priest involved full-time in evangelical preaching and apostolic ministry. Presently based in Chicago, Fr. Sala has been a speaker in diocesan, regional, national, and international conferences, and has made several appearances on Christian television and radio. He has been involved in international efforts of reconciliation between Evangelical Protestants and Catholics, and is part of the ecumenical ministry of Harvest Evangelism, where he is a faculty member for the Transform Our World Conferences. He is the author of the new book entitled The Stained Glass Curtain: Crossing the Evangelical-Catholic Divide to Find our Common Heritage. His website is www.TheStainedGlassCurtain.com.
I always thought the word “apologetics” was somewhat curious. As the Church uses it, apologetics is the field concerned with demonstrating the truth and legitimacy of Christianity. The term actually comes from two Greek words which mean “to speak in defense of” (hence, some call apologetics “defending the faith”). But, based on the more common use of the word “apology,” it can also sound like we are asking for forgiveness for ourselves.
I believe the Catholic Church is in need of a heavy dose of both meanings in the wake of the recent scandals rocking us. It is no longer uncommon to hear more astonishing news every few days. Things like the near-bizarre intrigues of the “Vatileaks” (in which the Pope’s butler publicized embarrassing private documents), or the continuous exposés on institutions and high-ranking leaders, all leave the impression that something is unraveling. Meanwhile, as the Vatican shrouds itself in such secrecy, one can only wonder, “What is the real truth…and what’s next?”
In light of all this, there has been a lot of “apologizing” (i.e., asking for forgiveness) by various leaders as official spokespersons of the Catholic community. Admittedly, some people question their sincerity: how much is the backpedaling maneuver of an institution that knows it’s in trouble? Rest assured God will evaluate all that. He knows what the truth is, He is no respecter of persons, and nothing slips by His scrutiny.
But here I would like to take up the other meaning of the word, “apology”. A wise sage once said, “Everyone should fear becoming mentally clouded and obsessed with one small section of the truth.” I’d like to make an appeal that there is an even deeper issue of legitimacy facing Christianity at times like these. Certainly, scandal is not “one small section of the truth,” but it isn’t the entire picture either, and we would do well not to fixate on it. An important larger truth is that, like it or not, the rest of the world watches the Church of Christ and associates his name and reputation with It. So when scandal hits any branch, the Body and the witness of all of us are lessened. What’s more, how we navigate through together would say more to the world about the legitimacy of Christianity, than would the scandals alone. Scandal in our ranks, then, is a spiritual trumpet-call for the whole Church of Christ to come together, not fall further apart.
As a matter of fact, history has already shown that our reaction to scandal as a Body has profound consequences on Christian witness. Take, for example, the circumstances of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther originally purposed a needed overhaul within the Church of his day. But unfatherly actions from his leaders hurt him, thus fueling and intensifying the other current scandals. Ever since Luther’s time, however, Protestant negative reaction to the Catholic Church has often expressed not only criticism (and at times even valid judgment), but also the irritation of a wound from Church authority. How does that unhealed wound affect the unified witness of Christianity? After Luther was orphaned by his spiritual fathers, his own movement continued to struggle with trusting authority and resolving its ecclesial conflicts, and Protestantism has since branched off into some 41,000 different denominations. As a result, it is a challenge today to get Evangelical leaders to come together for the greater cause of transforming the world. In the ecumenical Christian Kingdom-movement of which I am a part, we call this the "orphan spirit."
On the other hand, the defensive “Counter-Reformation” has produced a Catholic Church still too institutionally lax about the witness of a united Christianity: it generates theologically brilliant statements, yet eludes the serious relational calamity that still needs head-on healing.
Let the truth of scandals in the Church be what it is. If God is housecleaning systems that perpetuate things clearly not of Him, so be it. It certainly would not be the first time in His People’s history, Old or New Covenant. But even here, we don’t want to risk becoming “mentally clouded and obsessed” with a “section of the truth.” These scandals are challenging us to abandon our usual way of reacting (running for cover into our own denominations…“We’re right, they’re so wrong”…), to probe further, and to look harder at our unified witness to the world, or lack thereof. Our views of the Catholic Church today – affirmative, negative or anywhere in between – act as a thermometer-reading on the Body’s fever of disunity. Let that diagnosis urge us to move decisively back into the oneness which we have lacked for so long…a oneness which Jesus unapologetically declared is the bigger picture necessary for His followers to impact the world.